The Headmaster often says that Thanksgiving is his favourite festival of the year. I think I know what he means. It is so simple and pure, uncluttered and unencumbered by commercialization. Already in the stores there is merchandise for Halloween and even for Christmas! Thanksgiving seems blessedly free of such hype.
Thanksgiving is profoundly spiritual and counters explicitly the narcissisms of contemporary culture. How? Because thanksgiving requires an acknowledgment of what is other than you; in short a kind of reflection and thoughtfulness about God, nature, and other people. It is actually universal to human culture and civilization on several different levels. The oldest and most common sense of thanksgiving has to do with harvest festivals, a recognition that the fruits of the earth and human labour cannot be taken for granted and that human labour requires our working with the order of nature. This is a profound kind of wisdom. It counters the tendency to take things for granted or, even worse, the idea of entitlement. It checks the assumptions, too, of our technocratic mastery of nature which has shown itself to be so destructive both of nature and of one another.
But beyond the wonder of harvest, there are other kinds of thanksgivings such as social and political thanksgivings, like national thanksgiving days or times in human history when a nation has a particular reason to pronounce a day of national thanksgiving whether it is for deliverance from some natural catastrophe or some political act of intended destruction, such as the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605, the attempt to blow up King and Parliament in England. The plot was foiled but the sense of the enormity of the attempt and the thought of the devastation and chaos it would have occasioned had a strong hold on the imaginations of the peoples of England in the 17th century such that it remained a national day of thanksgiving for deliverance for a very, very long time. In Canada, the Thanksgiving weekend precedes the Monday holiday which is Canada’s national day of Thanksgiving. In the United States, it occurs much later, in November. Different nations have different days of national commemoration. So, thanksgiving embraces a range of concerns.
In every case, thanksgiving is essentially reflective and helps us to think about our relation to the created order and our engagement with one another. It is in that sense profoundly spiritual and is an essential feature of the religions and philosophies of the world. It is central to the Christian understanding as well as to Judaism and Islam because at the heart of thanksgiving is an active openness to God and to what comes from God in terms of creation and providence; an openness to the goodness of creation which is such a powerful idea in our times of negativity and fear about the world and about one another. The central act of worship for Christians is the Eucharist, a word meaning thanksgiving.
The classic gospel for Thanksgiving, harvest or otherwise, is the story read in Chapel on Monday and Tuesday about the healing of ten lepers, one of whom “turned back, glorifying God and falling down on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” For what? For being healed. This story speaks profoundly to our anxious times of contagion, owing to COVID-19 where we tend to see one another as lepers in some sense or other. The lepers, because of the fear of contagion, were outcasts of the society. Here they stand outside the city and call out for mercy to Jesus. Jesus bids them “go, show yourselves to the priests.” Luke tells us that “as they went, they were cleansed,” all ten. But of the ten, only one, “seeing that he was healed, turned back … giving him thanks.”
Luke adds the important detail that this one who turned back was a Samaritan, an outsider of the outsiders, as it were, within ancient Judaism. The Samaritans were a despised sect within Judaism whom Jesus refers to a number of times to criticize the exclusivity and self-righteousness of the Jews, on the one hand, and as an example of something more universal, on the other hand. Jesus calls attention to the one who turned back naming him a stranger and commending his action. He is told to “arise and go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole.” Ten are cleansed and healed, but only one is said to be made whole. The stranger, the outcast, illustrates what it means to be neighbour; in short, what it means to be human. His act of thanksgiving connects the love of God and the love of neighbour. It belongs to our vocation to be thankful people.
In this lies the miracle and wonder of thanksgiving as belonging to the true dignity and freedom of our humanity. Thanksgiving is the free act of our humanity in the acknowledgment of what is good. In that sense it is the movement of the good as grace in us. It speaks to the true dignity and freedom of our humanity.
We give thanks for what we have received, and we give thanks to God and others through whom we have received good things. It is about acknowledgement. It cannot be forced. It is really a form of thinking, a thinking with one another and towards God as the source of all and every good thing. In the lesson read on Thursday, Deuteronomy reminds Israel that in keeping the commandments of God, they are being led into a good land, a land of promise. This, too, acts as a necessary counter to our gnostic fears about the world as evil rather than good, thus complementing the reading from Luke. For in turning back and giving thanks we are being made whole. Thanksgiving speaks to the true dignity and purpose of our humanity and provides a strong affirmation of the goodness of creation. It signals a kind of thinking in which we learn not to be fearful but to take delight in the world and in one another and, above all, in God.
The poet-preacher, John Donne, captures an even deeper spiritual sense of thanksgiving in a little prayer. “Blessed be God that he is God only and divinely like himself.” This is to bring all and every good home to God from whom all good things do come. Such is the greater wonder of thanksgiving.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English and ToK TeacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy